Courting Beltran

COURTING BELTRAN

January 11, 2005: The New York Mets introduce Carlos Beltran at a press conference at Shea Stadium. Days earlier, Beltran agreed to a seven year, $119 million deal. “I am proud to be a part of the new Mets … this organization is going in a new direction, a direction of winning,” said Beltran.

It was Spring Training 2005 and there was hope in Port St. Lucie, Florida. No, not the false hope that every Major League Baseball team feels, but the sincere buzz of excitement that surrounds postseason contenders.

The New York Mets were getting a lot of attention. The Mets signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and were in hot pursuit of Carlos Delgado (a deal that didn’t materialize until 2006). With young stars David Wright, Jose Reyes and veterans Cliff Floyd, Mike Piazza, Tom Glavine and Mike Cameron already in the mix, the off-season moves sparked a renewed confidence at the complex, coaxing majority owner Fred Wilpon out of hiding.

Wilpon, who had watched Beltran dominate the 2004 postseason, poked his head out of runway at Tradition Field (now Clover Field) and scanned the crowd as if he were waiting for the perfect moment to make his move. Wilpon and his former high school buddy Sandy Koufax made a b-line to their seats behind home plate. Upon arrival, Mets fans began clapping, then standing and cheering – not Koufax – Wilpon.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t witness it with my own eyes (and ears). Wilpon appeared as surprised as anyone, offering a half wave and an awkward grin.

Mets fans were applauding Wilpon’s willingness to invest in the New York Mets, Yes, even before Bernie Madoff, the franchise had a reputation for being miserly, allowing the crosstown rival Yankees and others across the league outbid and outperform the only National League franchise in New York.

After assuming the role as general manager after the 2004 season, Omar Minaya was accepted the challenge but only if Wilpon provided the autonomy and the financial wherewithal to operate like a professional New York baseball franchise.

It didn’t take much arm-twisting after Minaya and Wilpon watched Beltran, then just 27 years old, devour every pitching staff that faced him. Over the span of 12 postseason games with the Houston Astros, Beltran hit .435 with eight homers, 14 RBIs, six steals and a .536 on-base percentage.

“There’s some guys who wear a Superman shirt, but he was Superman,” said then teammate Craig Biggio. “Anybody that was part of it, that saw it, watched it — it was one of the most incredible hitting experiences I’ve seen in my life.”

Jeff Bagwell added, “There’s not one thing he couldn’t do. There’s one video of a home run, and I remember walking up to home plate and you could see Carlos coming and me talking to [Cardinals catcher Mike] Matheny. And he’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I said, ‘Dude, this is unbelievable.’ It was something special.”

Omar Minaya called Carlos Beltran one of the best players in the game, and when the calendar turned to November, the Mets GM had a short list of names he fully intended to bring Queens: Beltran, Martinez and Delgado.

Minaya moved quickly – and strategically. He knew his only chance to secure Beltran would require a preemptive strike to get his attention. The Mets put their time and energy into Pedro Martinez. Working quickly, and knowing the Boston Red Sox were hesitant to make their ace a long-term offer, Minaya seized the opportunity.

On November 16, the New York Mets introduced Pedro Martinez to New York. With the first deal done, Minaya turned his attention to Beltran. The Mets GM was persistent, calling Scott Boras 31 straight days as a friendly reminder that the organization was ready and waiting for their opportunity.

When the Astros deadline to sign Beltran came and went, Minaya intensified his negotiations with Team Beltran. Meanwhile, Boras put an offer on the table to the crosstown rival Yankees: six years, $100 million. The Yankees did not respond.

Boras then reapproached the Astros with a seven-year, $108 million offer including a no-trade clause. Houston didn’t balk at the numbers, but they hedged on the no-trade clause, which opened the door for the Mets to walk through.

Saturday, January 10, 2004: Omar Minaya finally asked the question … What will it take to get this deal done? Boras, Minaya and Beltran negotiated through the night and early morning hours. The Mets GM was determined to close the deal.

“I wanted him to be a Met before daylight,” Minaya later explained to the media. “Once daylight comes, you don’t know what can happen.”

The sun rose over New York and a deal was in place: seven years, $119 million. The Yankees and Astros fell $10 million short of the Mets offer.

Two days later, Beltran stepped to the podium at Shea Stadium. More than 250 members of the media and Mets personnel were packed into the room to welcome the new face of the Mets. Beltran called New York a “city of a lot of pressure.” The free agent signings paid immediate dividends. By March, the Mets reported the team had sold one million tickets for the 2005 season, doubling advanced ticket sales from a year earlier.

HOW DO YOU REMEMBER CARLOS BELTRAN?

The Carlos Beltran years are littered with thrilling highs and devastating lows. There is a contingency of Mets fans who view Beltran as the greatest centerfielder in franchise history, and maybe the entire generation of Major League Baseball. He is recognized for his five-tool talent and consistent performance.

Then, there is another audience that remember Beltran for a single moment: Game 7 of the 2006 National Championship Series. With the Mets trailing the Cardinals 3-1 with two outs and the bases loaded, the tying run a single away, Adam Wainwright buckled Beltran’s knees with a nasty two-strike curveball leaving the Mets star standing at home plate with a bat on his shoulder.

Which camp are you in?

THE STENGEL REPORT
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